What's the Difference Between a Grudge and a Toxic Relationship?
One can lead to the other if the rift becomes irreparable
Marcia D. of Florida was very close to all three of her siblings when she was growing up. She recalls, “I was the baby in our ultra-conservative family. My parents didn't like conflict and taught us to get along, no matter what. Sometimes this meant keeping our mouths shut even when we felt we were treated unfairly."
Marcia was closest to her oldest sister who died in her mid 50s. She remained in a relationship with her two living siblings, but there were always tensions, especially between Marcia and her brother’s wife.
Marcia explains, “I never cared much for my sister-in-law, but did my best to build a positive relationship with her.”
Her parents' death strained Marcia's relationship with her siblings even further.
“As sad as it was to lose my parents, their passing allowed me to finally be myself. I dyed my hair purple, had several tattoos done, left the family church and changed my [political] party affiliation," says Marcia. "My actions were met with judgmental stares and passive-aggressive comments from both my siblings and their spouses."
"A grudge is a longstanding feeling of disappointment, resentment or anger toward another person which interferes with trust and openness in a relationship."
Finally, when her sister accused Marcia of stealing a ring, she decided that, at age 57, she had had enough.
“Even after we found the ring, neither my sister nor my other two siblings apologized to me,” says Marcia. “That is when I knew our relationships were over and that I would be better off without them in my life.”
Grudges vs. Toxic Relationships
Deciphering between a grudge and a toxic relationship can be challenging. In most relationships, especially ones that are longstanding or close, such as with siblings, there are going to be differences, arguments and hurt feelings. Many times, people try to forgive and move past the issue. But sometimes a relationship gets stuck in a hurt space and a grudge forms.
Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch, says, “A grudge is a longstanding feeling of disappointment, resentment or anger toward another person which interferes with trust and openness in a relationship. While it may vary in intensity over time, it is likely to occupy emotional space and energy for the holder."
Long- held grudges can lead to deep-seated resentment, which in turn infuses toxicity into a relationship.
“A toxic relationship may include grudges and other maladaptive or emotionally unhealthy dynamics between two people. Often, the relationship causes distress and perpetuates emotionally destructive patterns," Dorfman says.
A toxic relationship can be damaging to a person's physical, mental and emotional health. That is what happened to Marcia. For years, she felt she couldn’t be her true self around her siblings and that her sister-in-law provoked feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Her decision to sever ties and become estranged from her siblings was about self-preservation.
“If you need protection from a harmful relationship that goes beyond a simple grudge, it is time to get out,” says Marcia.
Letting Go of A Grudge
Most grudges stem from an inability to express anger directly to a person who has been hurtful or unkind.
As Fran Walfish, a couples’ relationship and family psychologist and author in Beverly Hills, Calif., explains, “Flexibility, openness, and fluidity is healthy, particularly because feelings change from moment to moment. A strong ego can move with the flow and be able to deal with disappointments, life’s inevitable ups and downs, and daily letdowns. (In contrast), grudges tend to held by people who have a certain rigidity in their personality structures.”
Holding a grudge can have negative repercussions for the grudgeholder. "Often, it’s those who mean the most to us that evoke the strongest hurt and anger,” says Walfish. “The risk is that you lose a deeply meaningful relationship by holding onto a grudge.”
In addition, a grudge requires ongoing emotional energy and a continued attachment to the person that upset you. As Dorfman says, "Grudges are likely to detract from the person's overall well-being and require a person to hold onto the negative feelings.”
According to Walfish, there are adverse physical and medical risks posed to holding onto a grudge, including high blood pressure, headaches, digestive imbalances and insomnia.
But letting go of a grudge isn’t easy. Walfish says, “It takes an unusually positive, optimistic, easy-going person to be able to ‘just let it go.' But in the end, you are the beneficiary.”
Haley Neidich, a Florida-based mental health professional and relationship expert, says, “If you are simply upset about one incident or past situations, and that individual has owned responsibility for that behavior, it may be worth considering the degree to which you're able to forgive."
Letting go of a grudge may require compromise from both sides and a willingness to listen to the other person’s point of view. For individuals that want to forgive but can't, the support of a licensed mental health professional can help.
Ending a Toxic Relationship
Healthy connections with friends and family members improve a person’s self-esteem, happiness and confidence. In contrast, toxic relationships make a person feel sad, uncomfortable, vulnerable and emotionally weak.
Neidich says, “The primary way to discern whether a relationship is toxic is the degree to which the presence of the individual in your life impacts your mental health and functioning. When someone's very presence — let alone their behavior or past hurts — is deeply triggering of painful emotions, it is likely best to consider limiting your exposure to that individual.”
Unlike holding a grudge, ending a toxic relationship mitigates the intensity of the anger by creating boundaries, both physical and emotional, from the toxicity. Sometimes, limiting exposure such as only seeing each other a few times a year or in large group settings to avoid intimate communication may be enough for self-protection. But in some cases, such as Marcia’s, the best solution may be to sever ties completely, at least for a while.
"The primary way to discern whether a relationship is toxic is the degree to which the presence of the individual in your life impacts your mental health and functioning."
It’s important to remember that ending a toxic relationship can affect other friends or family members. They may want to continue to have relationships with both people and it’s unfair to ask them to choose sides.
For Marcia, she had to consider how her actions would impact her children, her deceased sister's son and her brother's children.
"So far I have been very careful not to involve other family members or mutual friends in my estrangement from my sister, brother, or their spouses,” she says. “My adult children sometimes say they miss the big family gatherings, but I have always encouraged them to maintain a relationship with their aunt and uncle if they wish.”
As people get older, they may see a situation through a different lens than they did when they were younger.
Dorfman says that, initially, when a person ends a toxic relationship, they may experience relief, self-assertion and vindication, but these feelings may change as they navigate new stages of life.
"Most people's perspectives and feelings change with time: maturity, life experience, and family events (illness, weddings, death) can prompt a shift in feelings, ignite a desired change or catalyze a person to re-address the situation,” Dorfman says. “For example, a recent and unfortunate cancer diagnosis prompted a sister to reach out and reconnect with her estranged sibling. Faced with her mortality, she reassessed her relationships and decided to heal an old wound.”
But for some people, ending a relationship is the healthiest way forward.
It’s been three years since Marcia stopped communicating with her siblings (although she still speaks to her brother’s adult children). She feels at peace with her decision and is happy to be free of the drama and negativity.
“It's difficult to decide to cut off ties with siblings while one or both parents are still alive — they want unity in the family. But if the relationship is damaging your mental well-being, it's time to put yourself first and get out of the toxic relationship,” says Marcia. “No one has the right to make you feel bad about yourself."